What follows is a retrospective collection of some of my writings on Canadian culture, mainly literature, extending over a period of nearly thirty years. It will perhaps be easiest to introduce them personally, as episodes in a writing career which has been mainly concerned with world literature and has addressed an international reading public, and yet has always been rooted in Canada and has drawn its essential characteristics from there.
The famous Canadian problem of identity may seem a rationalized, self-pitying or made-up problem to those who have never had to meet it, or have never understood that it was there to be met. But it is with human beings as with birds: the creative instinct has a great deal to do with the assertion of territorial rights. The question of identity is primarily a cultural and imaginative question, and there is always something vegetable about the imagination, something sharply limited in range. American writers are, as writers, not American: they are New Englanders, Mississippians, Middle Westerners, expatriates, and the like. Even in the much smaller British Isles we find few writers who are simply British: Hardy belongs to “Wessex,” Dylan Thomas to South Wales, Beckett to the Dublin-Paris axis, and so on. Painters and composers deal with arts capable of a higher degree of abstraction, but even they are likely to have their roots in some very restricted coterie in Paris or New York.
Similarly, the question of Canadian identity, so far as it affects the creative imagination, is not a “Canadian” question [i] at all, but a regional question. An environment turned outward to the sea, like so much of Newfoundland, and one turned towards inland seas, like so much of the Maritimes, are an imaginative contrast: anyone who has been conditioned by one in his earliest years can hardly become conditioned by the other in the same way. Anyone brought up on the urban plain of southern Ontario or the gentle pays farmland along the south shore of the St. Lawrence may become fascinated by the great sprawling wilderness of Northern Ontario or Ungava, may move there and live with its people and become accepted as one of them, but if he paints or writes about it he will paint or write as an imaginative foreigner. And what can there be in common between an imagination nurtured on the prairies, where it is a centre of consciousness diffusing itself over a vast flat expanse stretching to the remote horizon, and one nurtured in British Columbia, where it is in the midst of gigantic trees and mountains leaping into the sky all around it, and obliterating the horizon everywhere?
Thus when the CBC is instructed by Parliament to do what it can to promote Canadian unity and identity, it is not always realized that unity and identity are quite different things to be promoting, and that in Canada they are perhaps more different than they are anywhere else. Identity is local and regional, rooted in the imagination and in works of culture; unity is national in reference, international in perspective, and rooted in a political feeling. There are, of course, containing imaginative forms which are common to the whole country, even if not peculiar to Canada. I remember seeing an exhibition of undergraduate painting, mostly of landscapes, at a Maritime university. The students had come from all over Canada, and one was from Ghana.
The Ghana student had imaginative qualities that the Canadians did not have, but they had something that he did not have, and it puzzled me to place it. I finally realized what it was: he had lived, in his impressionable years, in a world where colour was a constant datum: he had never seen colour as a cycle that got born in spring, matured in a burst of autumn flame, and then diedout into a largely abstract, black [ii] and white world. But that is a factor of latitude rather than region, and most of the imaginative factors common to the country as a whole are negative influences.
Negative, because in our world the sense of a specific environment as something that provides a circumference for an imagination has to contend with a global civilization of jet planes, international hotels, and disappearing landmarks — that is, an obliterated environment. The obliterated environment produces an imaginative dystrophy that one sees all over the world, most dramatically perhaps in architecture and town planning (as it is ironically called), but in the other arts as well. Canada, with its empty spaces, its largely unknown lakes and rivers and islands, its division of its dependence on immense railways to hold it together, has had this peculiar problem of an obliterated environment throughout most of its history. The effects of this are clear in the curiously abortive cultural developments of Canada, as is said later in this book. They are shown even more clearly in its present lack of will to resist its own disintegration, in the fact that it is practically the only country left in the world which is a pure colony, colonial in psychology as well as in mercantile economics.
The essential element in the national sense of unity is the east-west feeling, developed historically along the St. Lawrence-Great Lakes axis, and expressed in the national motto, a mari usque ad mare. The tension between this political sense of unity and the imaginative sense of locality is the essence of whatever the word “Canadian” means. Once the tension is given up, and the two elements of unity and identity are confused or assimilated to each other, we get the two endemic diseases of Canadian life. Assimilating identity to unity produces the empty gestures of cultural nationalism; assimilating unity to identity produces the kind of provincial isolation which is now called separatism.
The imaginative Canadian stance, so to speak, facing east and west, has on one side one of the most powerful nations in the world; on the other there is the vast hinterland of the north, with its sense of mystery and fear of the unknown, and the curious guilt feelings that its uninhabited [iii] loneliness seems to inspire in this exploiting age. If the Canadian faces south, he becomes either hypnotized or repelled by the United States: either he tries to think up unconvincing reasons for being different and somehow superior to Americans, or he accepts being “swallowed up by” the United States as inevitable. What is resented in Canada about annexation to the United States is not annexation itself, but the feeling that Canada would disappear into a larger entity without having anything of any real distinctiveness to contribute to that entity: that, in short, if the United States did annex Canada it would notice nothing except an increase in natural resources. If we face north, much the same result evidently occurs: this happened to the Diefenbaker campaign of 1956, which has been chronicled in books with such words as “lament” and “renegade” in their titles.
Whenever the east-west context of the Canadian out-look begins to weaken, separatism, which is always there, emerges as a political force. Every part of Canada has strong separatist feelings: there is a separatism of the Pacific Coast, of the Prairies, of the Maritimes, of Newfoundland, as well as of Quebec. Ontario, of course, began with a separatist movement from the American Revolution. But since the rise of the great ideological revolutionary movements of our time, whether communist, fascist, imperialist, Islamic or what not, separatism has been an almost wholly destructive force. The successful separatings, like that of Norway and Sweden in 1905, took place before the rise of these movements. In India and Pakistan, in the Arab-Jewish world, and in many other centres divided by language, colour or religion, separatism has seldom if ever stabilized the prejudices which gave rise to it, but has steadily increased them. Even where there is no political affiliation, the separation of Cuba from the American sphere of influence, or of Yugoslavia from the Russian one, cannot be a politically neutral act. Quebec in particular has gone through an exhilarating and, for the most part, emancipating social revolution. Separatism is the reactionary side of this revolution: what it really aims at is a return to the introverted malaise in which it began, when [iv] Quebec’s motto was je me souviens and its symbols were those of the habitant rooted to his land with his mother church over his head, and all the rest of the blood-and-soil bit. One cannot go back to the past historically, but the squalid neo-fascism of the FLQ terrorists indicates that one can always do so psychologically.
What has just been said may seem inconsistent with some of what is said later on in this book; but the essays cover a period of thirty years, and naturally conditions in Canada itself have changed a good deal in that time. At the same time the changes have occurred within an intelligible pattern of repetition. The most striking changes are in French Canada, but some of those changes recapitulate earlier developments in English Canada. Thus the admiration for France, which on one occasion took the form of picketing a Cabinet Minister for saying that a French-made aeroplane was not as good as an English-made one, indicates a phase of colonialism now obsolete in the other culture. Similarly, separatism in the Atlantic or Prairie provinces is often based on a feeling that Ontario regards itself as an Israel or Promised Land with the outlying provinces in the role of desert wanderers: this is much the same as the attitude that Quebec separatism explicitly adopts toward the Francophone Canadians in New Brunswick or Manitoba. There may be a clue here to the immediate future prospects of the country worth investigating, and the following essays, with all their repetitions and dated allusions, may provide some useful historical perspective.
I grew up in two towns, Sherbrooke and Moncton, where the population was half English and half French, divided by language, education and religion, and living in a state of more or less amiable Apartheid. In the Eastern Townships the English-speaking group formed a northern spur of New England, and had at a much earlier time almost annexed themselves to New England, feeling much more akin to it than to Quebec. The English-speaking Maritimers, also, had most of their cultural and economic ties with New England, but their political connexion was with New France, so that culturally, from their point of view, Canada stopped [v] at Fredericton and started again at Westmount. There were also a good many Maritime French families whose native language was English, and so had the same cultural dislocation in reverse.
As a student going to the University of Toronto, I would take the train to Montreal, sitting up overnight in the coach, and looking forward to the moment in the early morning when the train came into Levis, on the south side of the St. Lawrence, and the great fortress of Quebec loomed out of the bleak dawn mists. I knew that much of the panorama was created by a modern railway hotel, but distance and fog lent enchantment even to that. Here was one of the imaginative and emotional centres of my own country and my own people, yet a people with whom I found it difficult to identify, what was different being not so much language as cultural memory. But the effort of making the identification was crucial: it helped me to see that a sense of unity is the opposite of a sense of uniformity. Uniformity, where everyone “belongs,” uses the same cliches, thinks alike and behaves alike, produces a society which seems comfortable at first but is totally lacking in human dignity. Real unity tolerates dissent and rejoices in variety of outlook and tradition, recognizes that it is man’s destiny to unite and not divide, and understands that creating proletariats and scape-goats and second-class citizens is a mean and contemptible activity. Unity, so understood, is the extra dimension that raises the sense of belonging into genuine human life. Nobody of any intelligence has any business being loyal to an ideal of uniformity: what one owes one’s loyalty to is an ideal of unity, and a distrust of such a loyalty is rooted in a distrust of life itself.
In the last essay in this book I speak of the alternating rhythm in Canadian life between opposed tendencies, one romantic, exploratory and idealistic, the other reflective, observant and pastoral. These are aspects of the tension of unity and identity already mentioned. The former is emotionally linked to Confederation and Canadianism; the latter is more regional and more inclined to think of the country as a series of longitudinal sections. They are the attitudes that Pratt symbolizes in Towards the Last Spike by MacDonald [vi] and Blake, and in fact they did at one time have analogues in our political philosophies. I first became aware of this polarization of mood through Canadian painting, which is why I include three short pieces on painting here. The romantic and exploratory tendency was represented for me by Thomson, the Group of Seven (especially Harris, Jackson and Lismer), and Emily Carr; the pastoral tendency by most of the better painters before Thomson and by David Milne later. “Canadian and Colonial Painting” was contributed to The Canadian Forum, whose good-natured hospitality has helped so many Canadians to learn to write. The piece is polemical and immature, but I think it got hold of a genuine theme. The tribute to Milne appeared in the second issue of Here and Now, accompanied by illustrations which the imaginative reader should have little difficulty in reconstructing. The Lawren Harris essay was the preface to the book of his writings and paintings edited by my classmate R.G. Colgrove and published in 1969: it is therefore recent, but its attitude is very close to another article on Harris written many years earlier.
I joined the Department of English at Victoria College, and there became exposed to the three personal influences described in “Silence in the Sea.” This lecture inaugurated a series established in honour of Pratt by Memorial University in 1968. When I was still a junior instructor, the first edition of A.J.M. Smith’s Book of Canadian Poetry appeared (1943), and my review of it in The Canadian Forum was perhaps my first critical article of any lasting importance. It is hard to overstate my debt to Mr. Smith’s book, which brought my interest in Canadian poetry into focus and gave it direction. What it did for me it did for a great many others: the Canadian conception of Canadian poetry has been largely formed by Mr. Smith, and in fact it is hardly too much to say that he brought that conception into being. The article on the narrative tradition resulted from a lead given me by the same book: this article was translated by Guy Sylvestre and appeared in an issue of his magazine Cants du ciel which was devoted to English Canadian poetry. The “Preface to an Uncollected Anthology,” a paper read to the Royal Society [vii] in Montreal in 1956, follows the same general line — in the original there was some deliberate overlapping with the narrative tradition article, as the latter was available only in French and in a periodical that had ceased publication. Towards the end it touches on the question of popular culture, which is also glanced at in the review of Edith Fowke’s collection of folk songs, also from The Canadian Forum.
At the time that I reviewed Mr. Smith’s anthology, I was struggling with my own book on the symbolism of William Blake (Fearful Symmetry, 1947). In the last chapter of that book the conception emerges of three great mythopoeic periods of English literature: one around 1600, the age of Spenser, Shakespeare and the early Milton; one around 1800, the age of Blake and the great Romantics; and one around the period 1920-1950. I thought at first of writing my second book on Spenser, but the pull of contemporary literature was too strong and the theory of literature too chaotic, and I was drawn to a more general and theoretical approach which ultimately became the Anatomy of Criticism (1957). When I had got started on this, in 1950, during a year I had off on a Guggenheim Fellowship, I was asked by my colleague J.R. MacGillivray, then editor of the University of Toronto Quarterly, to take over the annual survey of Canadian poetry in its “Letters in Canada” issue which had been made by the late E.K. Brown from the beginning of the survey nearly up to the time of his death. Reviews from the ten essays I wrote through the decade of the 1950s form the bulk of the present book.
These reviews are too far in the past to do the poets they deal with any good or any harm, not that they did much of either even at the time. In any case the estimates of value implied in them are expendable, as estimates of value always are. They may be read as a record of poetic production in English Canada during one of its crucial periods, or as an example of the way poetry educates a consistent reader of it, or as many other things, some of them no doubt most unflattering to the writer. For me, they were an essential piece of “field work” to be carried on while I was working out a comprehensive critical theory. I was fascinated to see how the [viii] echoes and ripples of the great mythopoeic age kept moving through Canada, and taking a form there that they could not have taken elsewhere. The better the poet, the more clearly and precisely he showed this, but the same tendencies could be seen even as far down as some of the doggerel, or what I called the naive verse.
By myth I meant, not an accidental characteristic of poetry which can be acquired as an ornament or through an allusion or by writing in a certain way, but the structural principle of the poem itself. Myth in this sense is the key to a poem’s real meaning, not the explicit meaning that a prose paraphrase would give, but the integral meaning presented by its metaphors, images and symbols. Naturally before this view had established itself it was widely misunderstood, and I became for a time, in Mr. Dudek’s phrase, the great white whale of Canadian criticism. That is, I was thought — still am in some quarters, evidently — to be advocating or encouraging a specific “mythological school” of academic, erudite, repressed and Puritanical poetry, in contrast to another kind whose characteristics were undefined but which was assumed to be much more warm-hearted, spontaneous and soul brother to the sexual instinct. Such notions came mainly not from other critics but from poets making critical obiter dicta. It does no great harm, however, for poets to be confused about the principles of criticism as long as some of the critics are not.
I was still engaged in this survey when I was approached by my friend Carl Klinck of Western Ontario, with his project for a history of English Canadian literature, and I joined his committee. The conclusion which I wrote for this history repeats a good many conceptions worked out earlier during the poetry reviews, but it is closely related to the rest of the book in which it first appeared, and is heavily dependent on the other contributors for data, conceptions and often phras-ing. I emphasize this because I have edited the text, to save the reader the distraction of being continually referred to another book, and the editing has concealed my debts.
For a long time it has been conventional for Canadian criticism to end on a bright major chord of optimism about [ix] the immediate future. This tone is in a curious contrast to the pervading tone of Canadian economists, historians, political theorists and social scientists. Some observers of the Canadian scene, including Professors Donald Creighton and George Grant, feel that there has been too long and too unchecked a domination of the longitudinal mentality in Canada, and that the tension between region and nation has finally snapped. Certainly a century after the American Civil War, the true north strong and free often looks more like a sham south weak and occupied — sham because there has been no war with this confederacy and no deliberate occupation. The national emphasis is a conservative one, in the lower-case sense of preserving the continuity of political existence, and it is typical of the confusions of identity in Canada that the one genuinely conservative Canadian party of the twentieth century, the CCF, expired without recognizing itself to be that. However, what seems to reason and experience to be perpetually coming apart at the seams may seem to the imagination something on the point of being put together again, as the imagination is occupationally disposed to synthesis. Perhaps that is part of the real function of the imagination in every community, and of the poets who articulate that imagination. In any case, there are many titles from many of the best known Canadian poets, “Resurgam,” “Words for a Resurrection,” “News from the Phoenix,” “The Depression Ends,” “Poem for the Next Century,” “O Earth Return,” “Home Free,” “Apocalyptics,” for the Canadian critic to murmur in his troubled sleep.
The title of the book has been pilfered from Margaret Atwood’s Journals of Susanna Moodie, a book unusually rich in suggestive phrases defining a Canadian sensibility.